Restoring Afghan Women’s Right to Education
With Afghanistan’s future in jeopardy, it’s time Canada took on a leading role to reopen schools for Afghan women
From a tantalizing promise of better things to come in the 1920s, to a resounding crash after August 2021 when Kabul fell to the Taliban, the story of Afghan women’s rights is one of the many tragedies in the country’s turbulent history.
Media outlets, NGOs and human rights workers have reported on the precipitous fall of women’s rights and freedoms with each new Taliban decree, leaving the women of Afghanistan trapped in the confines of their homes, facing a life of permanent servitude exacerbated by economic hardship.
When the Taliban returned to power in 2021, they initially presented themselves to the world as a kinder, gentler version of themselves, and promised that women would be allowed to continue their education.
But this proved to be a hollow exercise in public relations, and soon, new draconian laws—with severe punishments for non-compliance—sounded the death knell of all rights, freedoms and opportunities for women. A ban on girls going to school after grade six was followed by more decrees barring women from working for NGOs, restricting travel without a male escort, and forbidding them to visit public spaces such as parks and gyms.
Perhaps the last straw was when the Taliban closed all beauty salons in July 2023, which had not only provided spaces where women could relax and socialize with their female friends, but also provided employment for approximately 60,000 women, many of whom were the sole breadwinners for their families.
However, gender apartheid, as experts have called the current situation, has not always been the lot of Afghan women.
When Nellie McClung and her colleagues of the “Famous Five” were fighting for the advancement of women’s rights in Canada in the 1910s and 1920s, Afghan women had already made significant progress under King Amanullah, who ruled his country as its constitutional monarch in the 1920s.
Women in Kabul were permitted to go unveiled, and the first school for girls was opened in 1921. Among its graduates were future government ministers, members of parliament and university professors. In 1923, women were legally granted freedom of choice in marriage.
Queen Soraya, wife of King Amanullah became the icon of Afghan women’s rights, calling on women to remove their veils. “Do not think that our nation needs only men to serve it… We must all contribute toward the development of our nation and that this cannot be done without being equipped with knowledge. So, we should all attempt to acquire as much knowledge as possible in order that we may render our services to society in the manner of the women of early Islam,” she stated in 1926.
While daily life for the majority of women has never been easy in Afghanistan, even during the Soviet occupation, the Afghan government continued to promote women’s rights. But when the Taliban gained control of Afghanistan in 1996 the withdrawal of women’s rights was swift and brutal, and women quickly became prisoners in their homes.
But between 2001, when the US invaded Afghanistan and toppled the Taliban government, and the fall of Kabul in 2021, women began regaining some of the ground they had lost.
Ikram Massoud (not his real name since he requested anonymity for security reasons), a former university professor from Afghanistan, currently in exile, closely followed the progress of public education in his country during the period of the US-led military intervention.
“Afghanistan had a stable, inclusive education system for both males and females. Besides providing higher education opportunities to Afghans, Kabul University was also the host for international students,” he told Open Canada recently. “In 2002, there were six public education institutions (colleges and universities). By 2021, there were 39.”
In addition, the number of private institutions offering post secondary education shot up from none in 2002 to 130 in 2021. By this time, institutions of higher education were available in every province, and were open to both male and female students, he added, while also noting that women’s performance in education during this time was highly impressive.
“In 2002, there were 5,000 female students but by 2021, the number had increased to 100, 000,” he said. “In the last five years before 2021, girls made up 50 percent of the top ten for the university entrance exam. It proved their outstanding talent, ability, and enthusiasm.”
Dr. Kobra Safi is a product of Afghanistan’s education system when its doors were open to women.
Currently a refugee in Canada, and working with new immigrants as a life skills coach at the Multicultural Council of Windsor, Ontario, she exemplifies the talent, ability and enthusiasm that Massoud described; also, the pain of a generation of Afghan women whose educational achievements and the skills they had acquired are wasted by Taliban policies.
Safi worked at a teaching hospital in Kabul as a plastic reconstructive surgeon until August 2021. Her services were much needed due to the wounds suffered by many Afghans during the war, leaving burned and scarred faces and bodies.
But one day her career and all her dreams came to an abrupt halt. Taliban officials threatened her for treating male patients and for interacting with her male mentor. Realizing that not only her job, but her life was in danger, she fled Afghanistan with the help of Future Brilliance, a UK-based NGO, and lived in a refugee camp in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates for a year.
Despite the sorrow of having had to leave family, home and career for a life of uncertainty and anxiety about the future, she is a symbol of the hope, resilience and courage of many Afghan women.
In May this year, she won an award from the Multicultural Council “which goes to a newcomer to recognize optimism and perseverance.”
Already fluent in English, Safi is working to upgrade her skills to the level required for university studies. “My goal is to enroll at Western University, London, Ontario, and get my Canadian certification,” she said, adding that two nieces she left behind in Afghanistan can’t go to school and have no such opportunities.
Asuntha Charles worked in Afghanistan for ten years with various NGOs including Oxfam and Action Aid, and ended her contract with World Vision in August 2023.
“My heart and soul are in the rights of women, and it’s painful to see Afghan women’s rights being taken away,” she said in an interview from Chennai, her home town in India. “Prior to 2021, women, at least in the urban areas, were going to school and were active in sports such as soccer and boxing. Some were in politics and some were doctors and lawyers. But now even the right to go to parks and beauty salons has been removed.”
She added that this is a tragedy, not only for individual women but for the whole country. “Women’s leadership is important for countries like Afghanistan,” she said.
Lauryn Oates is the Executive Director of Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, an NGO based in Calgary, that works to provide gender-equitable education and advocate for human rights in Afghanistan.
Oates has worked with several development organizations, multilateral agencies, and governments, and has a long track record of specializing in education and gender equality.
She pointed out that the sudden withdrawal of Afghan women’s right to education is having a ripple effect on the country’s economy and has severe social consequences as well.
“5600 lecturers and staff lost their jobs when teacher’s colleges were closed,” she said in an interview. She added that the majority of teacher trainees were women.
“The suicide rates of girls have [also] skyrocketed in Afghanistan,” she said, adding that at Canadian Women for Women in Afghanistan, they often receive messages that girls and women are suffering from acute depression.
But despite the gloom and doom, Oates remains optimistic and the work done by her organization, and the money spent by Global Affairs Canada in the past has not been wasted, she said.
“We received grants from them (the Canadian government) to train 10,000 teachers, and they still have their skills. The situation will not last forever.”
Charles and Massoud agree that dialogue with the Taliban, regardless of the lack of recognition by the international community is the most critically needed first step towards ending the gender apartheid.
“You can’t bring about change without dialogue,” Charles said, adding that without empowering women to take their rightful place in Afghan society, the country would be left to warlords.
Massoud has similar advice for the Canadian government on the importance of opening channels of communication with the Taliban. This is something that could be achieved through Canada’s Special Representative for Afghanistan, based in Doha.
“Canada played a positive role in the last 20 years before the Taliban came to power again in 2021, and the Afghan people look to Canada as a friend that can help again,” he stated. “The problem of women’s rights has to be addressed within Afghanistan. Resettlement is not the answer. It’s not realistic to evacuate 40 million people.”
He added that Canada can work through the UN and UNESCO, and can leverage its good relations with Qatar to help solve the issue.
“Canada can persuade Qatar to host a conference for other Islamic countries, scholars and experts on Islam and invite the Taliban to discuss the issue,” he said.
He explained that there is no barrier to education prescribed by Islam and lifelong learning is an Islamic value, as evidenced by more progressive policies in pre-Taliban times.
Fawzia Koofi, a former member of Afghanistan’s parliament and its first female deputy speaker, also had to flee in country in fear for her life after the withdrawal of US and Western troops in 2021. She too has called for action in cooperation with other Islamic states to reverse what has happened to women in Afghanistan.
“Our emphasis [is] on the importance of regional countries in pressuring the Taliban to fully restore women rights and start a women centred political process. A stable and just Afghanistan is in the interest of region and beyond,” she wrote in a LinkedIn post after a recent consultation meeting with her activist colleagues in Istanbul.
Oates points out that the international community has a moral imperative and a pragmatic reason to help restore Afghan women’s rights.
“Education is their right; it is a common human right of all of humanity. Also, countries that deny women their rights lack stability and economic prosperity, and this has negative impacts globally,” she said.